Hong Kong authorities to install AI tech at country parks to spot wildfires, tally visitors. But can it see the wood for the trees?

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department say using AI-based systems can ensure effective management of protected areas and save manpower‘. Management of these areas involves labour-intensive monitoring and surveillance work, such as land and sea patrols, as well as stationing of staff on-site,’ it adds. — SCMP

Hong Kong environmental authorities have said they plan to use artificial intelligence to better detect wildfires and record the number of country park visitors in an effort to conserve manpower.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department on Tuesday said that using new technologies could ensure more effective management of protected areas, as past efforts involving physical surveillance used too many staff.

“Country and marine parks ... cover an extensive area of protected natural habitats, mostly at remote locations,” Country Parks Officer Lee Ying-ming told a board of government advisers.

“Management of these areas involves labour-intensive monitoring and surveillance work, such as land and sea patrols, as well as stationing of staff on-site.”

The use of AI-based technologies would allow authorities to more accurately tally the number of visitors entering country parks, better detect wildfires, as well as countering illegal fishing and boat-based speedsters, he added.

The topic was raised when the department’s Country and Marine Parks Board on Tuesday held a meeting to discuss the management of the city’s 32 country and marine parks.

Country Parks Ranger Services Officer Mariah Stewart said the department installed 28 automated infrared sensors at various entry points for country parks in Aberdeen and Tai Lam as a trial run in 2022.

The policy yielded visitor headcounts up to 70 per cent higher than those based on physical tallies in 2023, with counting systems at Aberdeen Country Park and Tai Lam Country Park respectively recording 900,000 and 1.1 million visitors.

Stewart said the results suggested that “automatic counters could capture visitor flows that might have been previously underestimated”.

She said authorities were planning to install 60 more sensors at country parks in the central New Territories and on Hong Kong Island before the end of this year.

The department in 2017 launched a pilot project to set up an AI-assisted wildfire detection system at the Tin Fu Tsai Fire Lookout in Tai Lam Country Park.

Official statistics show that 210 wildfires broke out between 2014 and 2023, damaging 2,700 hectares (6,671 acres) of land and more than 63,000 trees.

Country Parks Officer Lee said the department deployed staff to the 11 lookouts across the city for the previous fire season, which ran from last September to April of this year, to conduct around-the-clock surveillance.

The detector could “save valuable manpower resources” by collecting and sending real-time information about a potential wildfire, including its time, location and scale, as well as providing images, he added.

Authorities plans to install wildfire detectors to cover up to 70 per cent of the city’s country parks. Photo: Elson Li

The department last year secured funding from the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau to install wildfire detectors at all 11 lookouts, forming a surveillance network that will cover up to 70% of the city’s country parks.

Lee said the network was expected to be complete by mid-2026.

In 2022, the department installed video-analytic surveillance systems at two spots in waters near Lantau Island and another in the Cape D’Aguilar Marine Reserve to collect intelligence on illegal fishing and speeding activities.

Marine Parks Officer Ivan Chan Kwok-kuen said on Tuesday that the department was working with government experts to train its AI-based software to detect suspected illegal fishing and vessel speeding in the South Lantau Marine Park.

The department hoped to finish the software’s training this year, he added.

Chan said a similar system would be set up in northern Lantau Island this year to monitor the Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau Marine Park and the Brothers Marine Park. Both areas form a key habitat for the city’s vulnerable Chinese white dolphin population.

The installation of another system in the Cape D’Aguilar Marine Reserve was expected to be completed in 2025, he said. – South China Morning Post

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